Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon)

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Night of the Demon Thursday Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville. The showing will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Jacques Tourneur (Cat People)
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis, Athene Seyler, Maurice Denham
Rated: NR

Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) was originally released in the U.S. with 12 minutes hacked out of it and retitled Curse of the Demon (“Curse” was apparently felt to be scarier) — and even in that bastardized form it was a great horror picture. In its complete form — which is what we have here — it’s better still. Based — pretty loosely — on M.R. James’ story “Casting the Runes,” the film is about the evil Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), the leader of a Satanist group, who attempts to prevent an investigation into his activities by summoning a demon from hell to come after paranormal debunker Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews). As a horror film, there may never have been a better one.

I should explain that when I say there may have been a better horror film, I’m speaking strictly in horror-picture terms, and more or less in “classic” horror terms, as well. Are there better films? Of course. Even among “classic” horror — of which Night of the Demon may be the last true example — I’d certainly rank James Whale’s quartet of 1930s Universal horrors as superior, and the same goes for Edgar G.. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). But those five (off the top of my head) are films that completely transcend questions of genre. Night of the Demon may not quite do that, but as a pure horror movie, it’s pretty unbeatable. I can’t name a creepier or more persuasive one.

Director Tourneur cut his teeth on horror films. He was one of the architects — along with screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen and producer Val Lewton — of the “new” breed of horror movies that started in 1942 with Tourneur’s Cat People. (There’s a tendency to lionize Lewton and leave out the others, but there’s no denying that Tourneur and Bodeen helped create the Lewton template with that first film, while Tourneur directed the first three of the nine Lewton productions.)  As far as I’m concerned, he eclipsed those films with Night of the Demon, which used many of the same techniques, but blended them with a little more overt horror.

In later years, Tourneur tended to claim that actually showing the demon was a mistake that was forced on him by the producer. Of course, that was after the earlier films had been reassessed and praised to the skies for their restraint.There’s no indication that he objected to the demon being shown in 1957, and, as film historian William K. Everson noted in his Classics of the Horror Film, Tourneur had no need to because the monster depicted “is a lulu.” While I’d be the first to concede that the victim in the big finale is on the laughable side, I’m in Everson’s corner on the demon itself.

Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) will recognize that this is the movie being referred to in the song “Science Fiction Double Feature” whose lyrics go, “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes and passing them used lots of skill,” since the plot revolves around the demon being summoned by passing a parchment with runic symbols on it to the intended victim. That is exactly what Dr. Karswell does to Dr. Holden, and most of the film concerns Holden coming to the realization that the demon will come for him exactly on the night and at the time Karswell has claimed. As an addition to supernatural horror movie mythology, this is great stuff — even if the film wants us to buy into the idea that these symbols are carved on Stonehenge. (The shot of Holden finding them there is an obvious studio insert in the scene where he goes to the famous stone circle.)

There’s really not a false note in the film — and that extends to the terrific musical score by Clifton Parker, which gets my vote for one of the most effective horror movie scores of all time. If you’re any kind of a fan of horror pictures, this is a film you absolutely must see.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

15 thoughts on “Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon)

  1. Random bystander

    You’re right, this is a great film. What makes it great is not only the suspense, but a great script and story, especially the interplay between the American skeptic played by Andrews, and the British and Indian scientists, who either accept the supernatural as part of nature, or at least caustion Dr. Holden to keep an open mind–which he finally learns to do. The seance and hypnosis scenes are particularly creepy.

    This film also features Peggy Cummins from Gun Crazy. By the way, the character of Dr. Carswell is based on Aleister Crowley.

  2. Dionysis

    This is one of my favorite horror films as well; the creepy atmosphere really stands out, and Dana Andrews’ performance as the skeptical convert ranks among the best I’ve seen from him (although I admit I’ve not seen that many of his films). I think this would be well paired with the British film ‘Night of the Eagle’, another atmospheric chiller.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I think this would be well paired with the British film ‘Night of the Eagle’, another atmospheric chiller.

    Confusingly called Burn, Witch, Burn in the US, which is actually the title of a book by A. Merritt that was filmed as The Devil Doll in 1936. This is actually a version of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, which had been filmed by Universal as an “Inner Sanctum” mystery in 1944 as Weird Woman. Neither version gets anywhere near capturing the novel, I fear.

  4. sjmushroom

    I totally agree. One night when I very young I saw the Demon appear and to this day, I’ve never been so scared just looking at some horror image. The light and the mist mixed with the giant thing coming down the railway tracks was just too much.

    Also, the film has a nice feeling of quiet dread about it.

  5. Ken Hanke

    the film has a nice feeling of quiet dread about it

    Well, at least part of this part of Mr. Coleridge’s poem about the Ancient Mariner found its way into the film –

    Like one that on a lonesome road
    Doth walk in fear and dread,
    And having once turned round walks on,
    And turns no more his head;
    Because he knows a frightful fiend
    Doth close behind him tread.

  6. Dionysis

    “Neither version gets anywhere near capturing the novel, I fear.”

    I never read the book, and didn’t see the film when it was released here as ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’. I did see it under the European title (and have it on a region 2 DVD now), and found it to be first-rate. Coincidentally, I just read some reviews of this movie within the last half-hour and noticed several reviewers likened it to ‘Night of the Demon’, at least in terms of atmosphere and general creepiness. I agree.

  7. DrSerizawa

    I have the 2 version DVD. But to see this on the big screen…. you b@str@rds! You lucky heartless b@st@rds!

    We have the Salt Lake Film Society here that shows much of the same indie movies you do, but nothing like your Thursday screening series. I am insanely jealous.

  8. Ken Hanke

    you b@str@rds! You lucky heartless b@st@rds!

    Please! We are elitist bastards, not heartless ones!

    We have the Salt Lake Film Society here that shows much of the same indie movies you do, but nothing like your Thursday screening series. I am insanely jealous.

    This is why — or at least one reason — you should consider moving to Asheville.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Very heartening turnout for Night of the Demon — we were packed, to put it mildly. I was, however, saddened to learn that one of our regulars is moving to Wichita. He will be much missed.

  10. Dread P. Roberts

    Very heartening turnout for Night of the Demon—we were packed, to put it mildly.

    I’m still in a state of depression this morning over missing out on this last night.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I’m still in a state of depression this morning over missing out on this last night.

    Your absence was noted and your presence was missed.

  12. Very heartening turnout for Night of the Demon—we were packed, to put it mildly. I was, however, saddened to learn that one of our regulars is moving to Wichita. He will be much missed.

    Sorry I missed it as well, but decided to take advantage of having no kids at the house.

  13. John r

    I am not expected in Wichita until the 22nd, so I will try to make another showing or 2 between all the moving chores. My last request is that if the friend that I gave my “Tommy” ticket to does not show up, please slip a note with runes on it into their pocket. Thanks for the good movies, and better memories.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Sorry I missed it as well, but decided to take advantage of having no kids at the house.

    I suppose that’s a valid excuse…

  15. Ken Hanke

    I am not expected in Wichita until the 22nd, so I will try to make another showing or 2 between all the moving chores.

    I should hope so. You were gone Thursday night before I could get around to the bar side of the lounge.

    My last request is that if the friend that I gave my “Tommy” ticket to does not show up, please slip a note with runes on it into their pocket.

    How do I find this potential miscreant?

    Thanks for the good movies, and better memories.

    And thank you for being a part of it. I hope you’ll continue to wander in on here at least occasionally.

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